The Coastal West Sussex Partnership board gathered in person at Ricardo on Thursday 9th June. With 30 senior decision makers representing both public and private organisations in attendance, it was the first time many had been in the same room since before the Covid pandemic began.

Our Chairman, Henry Powell, set the scene:

“In the last two years much has changed and yet many of the challenges in our coastal strip remain the same.

“Multiple crises are creating long term permanent change. We are facing up to the world of shortage of energy, raw materials, finished goods and workers. After multiple crises it seems clear that globalisation is going to give way to localisation. The US alone is forecast to double its industrial base in the next five years.

“All of this is going to have both short- and long-term effects. We are very possibly moving towards stagflation and a very challenging economic period with business failure and standards of living significantly declining.

“However, where there is crisis there is also opportunity. As the economic world realigns and new normals are found there will be much opportunity for innovation, reshoring and future growth.

The UK has many strong sectors and localisation will double down in each of these areas. Localisation will also lead to new investment. The need for new skills in an increasingly automated and intelligent world will increase. New businesses will flourish and new workforces will be created.

“So, we must be ready to take advantage of this opportunity. Our job at the partnership is to ask how ready are we? To put it simply if we can’t avoid the downside, how do we make sure we take advantage of the upside?

“We think of our economic readiness in simple terms – we need the space, skilled workforce and infrastructure for growth – and each of these have to be underpinned by responsible sustainability.

“You will not be surprised to hear me say that we have much work to do. Each of the key areas requires sustained effort. Our purpose in this body is to unite the public and private sector to ensure that we meet the challenge.

“The partnership is currently going through a period of renewal. During the crisis many of our key collaborating partners retired or moved on. So today I’d like to remind us all of the key fundamentals needed to enable growth and the actions we must take.”

“On space – we receive regular reports from SHW and our recent report indicated that in some areas, rents are more than doubled and property prices are following suit. In a simple supply and demand market, this indicates a shortage, which is borne out by testimony from local business. Existing local businesses needing space to grow are finding it increasingly expensive. We certainly don’t have the space to welcome significant new businesses to the area. This is a clear obstacle to the area benefiting from future growth. We must do more to create the space for existing businesses to flourish and in which we can attract new ones. In many instances, this comes down to political leadership and a concerted effect from the whole community.

“The Growth Deals – which are a collaboration between WSCC and the District or Borough Authorities – are investing in ‘place’ to support sustainable growth – investing in public realm, town centres and local highway infrastructure.

“In terms of the labour market, the country as a whole lacks the engineering, technical and creative skills that we needed to flourish in the future. On the South Coast we have some of the lowest educational attainment levels in the nation. However, local education partners are aware of the challenge and are making efforts to address these. Progress is being made but we must not lose focus in this area. Furthermore, the loss of our Eastern European workforce has created extreme pressure in many of our local industries. Some estimates are that 20% of our local horticultural produce was left unpicked last summer and many other industries were unable to grow without the skilled hands to do so. We must use resources wherever they exist – including retraining local prisoners, upskilling our adults and, where possible, making the argument for visas for overseas talent.

“In terms of connectivity we remain disadvantaged by very poor road, rail and broadband networks. We are continuing to campaign for improvements to each. The most progress is being made in our super-fast broadband with West Sussex County Council delivering fibre connectivity across the county. But in order for the economy to flourish we must address all areas. In order to achieve these aims we need to influence at every level from central government down and highlight the local plight.

“On sustainability we have a couple of shining local projects which we much champion – capturing heat from the sewer network, rewilding, and the Sussex Kelp Restoration Project which is sucking up CO2.

“We face a challenging future but we see opportunity. Please ask yourself the question “are we ready?” and if the answer is no – please work with us to make sure it happen.”

Henry Powell, Chairman, Coastal West Sussex Partnership